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On Sucker Punch, Women, and Storytelling

 

A movie not about them, but you

Sucker Punch is not Inception. Zack Snyder is not trying to be Nolan. And with those two thoughts out of the way, let’s continue.

I’ll admit this—I was very reluctant to see this movie. As a woman, as a girl-geek—and a proud one at that—I was not thrilled by the trailers. The trailers pitched this movie to me, time and time, again as a fetishy, male-geek mashup of stuff I might otherwise enjoy if it weren’t for the shameless portrayal of women as oogling candy. A male friend and I argued back and forth over this—with him claiming the movie was about “female empowerment,” and me determined to prove him otherwise mostly by refusing to see the movie in protest. However, social circles and numbers with their powers combined dragged me along to see the movie Saturday night. Like many other critics, geeks, moviegoers, and everyone else here are my thoughts.

**Caution: Heavy Spoilers Ahead**

Sucker Punch is not Inception. Zack Snyder is not trying to be Nolan. Snyder takes visual aesthetic and a CGI budget to give us a movie about dreams as…dreams. Those things that occur during specific sleep cycles, which you might or might not remember upon waking. Those things you drop into during particularly boring classes when you want to be anywhere but there. For the most part, there’s zil to none metaphorical meaning to dreams, unless you believe in that kind of stuff. But dreams are a subconscious means of processing and understanding the world around us—or so we’re told.

Dreams are disorienting in film. Movies present a certain brand of irony where what we view on screen is supposed to be our perception of “reality.” “Reality,” here, is the world of the film, the settings and the characters, the story, etc. Long story short—when our perceived reality goes bonkers, so do we. Sucker Punch, in this regard, has more in common with Black Swan, which is about one woman’s perception of reality breaking down around her and carrying us with it.

For a dream to work in a movie, it has to process reality as much as escape it. Hence, the layering we see in Sucker Punch. The “reality” of the movie is a cold, cruel, early-20th century looking place. A girl is (supposedly) wrongfully imprisoned by a (definitely) wicked stepfather in a mental institution where he bribes a guy to forge the proper signatures to authorize a rush-order lobotomy. We don’t know much about the girl, BabyDoll, because she has very few lines in the movie a la videogame avatars. Is she actually insane?

The question is left purposefully unanswered as BabyDoll shows us her first dream. Against the backdrop of the asylum, BabyDoll shows us an alternate reality that’s a little more black and white: a brothel known as The Theater. The girls are all prisoners to a cruel owner, and made exotic dancers and prostitutes for the pleasure of rich, corrupt, bad men. Instead of under the table exchanges of cash for misdiagnoses, BabyDoll’s virginity is auctioned off to the highest bidder (the High Roller).

Unfortunately, this is the first train stop for anyone angered, upset, or outright lost by the movie to disembark.

Yes, it’s not an improved situation, but hey—ain’t it now easier to draw the lines of good and evil? The movie doesn’t really help by choosing to spend most of its time on this level. The stupider arguments I’ve come across have already forgotten the purpose of dreams/daydreaming. Life sucks, how do I understand it so I can get away from it?

Enter the second dream level, and the furthest point from reality. It is here Snyder unleashes a cosmic mashup of pure, geek gold. Second disembarking point. Face it, anyone who otherwise sneers, glares, boos, hisses, derides, and dismisses any element on this plane isn’t going to enjoy anything from this point on because that would be recognizing that someone who has the resources to make a movie actually finds use in geek material outside of a moneymaking gold mine. Here, if you enjoy any combination of comics, videogames, sci-fi, fantasy, anime, robots, distant planets, mechas, and more you’re going to pause whatever else you might think of Sucker Punch to enjoy the moment. Because it is glorious. It is this level of dreamscape where BabyDoll concocts a “just crazy enough to work” plan to help her and four new friends escape the Theater, also known as “processing point for an asylum full of girls who might or might not be insane.” Please keep in mind the real-reality, while not presented to us, is still in here somewhere.

Battle lines and trenches have been drawn over whether or not the movie is “female empowerment.” Because much of the screen time is spent within The Theater dream, punctuated by the fantastical action scenes, naysayers argue the girls’ time as skimpy-dressed prostitutes (living in the brothel) and skimpier-dressed action heroines is too much eye candy to anything but pandering to a male, geeky audience, and how ashamed we should all be for saying anything positive about the movie, etc, etc…

Here’s the problem with that argument: this is about a girl and her perceptions of reality. The Theater segments play too much with our ideas/beliefs of women and sexuality. BabyDoll envisions the brothel in order to create clear-cut lines out of a blurred and sticky situation (in addition, we still never find out if she’s actually insane). So…yeah, pretty sure prostitutes and dancers don’t normally dress like puritans, now do they? In this level, BabyDoll’s raw dancing abilities are too mesmerizing for words—but we never see her dance. She cuts away from sexual submission to a position of growth and power in the badass-action-heroine sequences. If you’re a badass, action heroine, you’re going to see yourself looking like one. Girls, who hasn’t imagined themselves looking like

The one con costume we all wish we looked good in

Sailor Moon? Or Wonder Woman? Voluntarily. To some yaysayers, this represents a portrayal of feminine empowerment, the likes of we rarely see in either geek culture or films in general.

And that’s…also kinda the problem.

The bulk of the movie takes place in the mind of a girl whose sanity is questionable, making her an extremely unreliable narrator. She only achieves some modicum of strength when she’s furthest removed from reality. Since it all takes place in her head, it’s all wiped away by the end. The dreamscapes are shown in the single, split-second remaining before the stake is driven through her brain. Several possible questions bounced around my head as the credits rolled…

  1. So…women can be strong, but only in their minds?
  2. Um…women have the potential for strength, they just choose not to tap into it in reality?
  3. Women + Strength = Insanity? We can’t have that? Who’s “we” here?

Really guys?

At the end of the movie, as a woman, I was aggravated by this portrayal of “female empowerment,” because it wasn’t actually empowering. And it wasn’t about the costuming, or the stock characterization. The most Snyder could offer up for closure was Blue getting arrested for his crimes (forgery, bribes, etc.). It came across as an, “Oops. My bad,” more than anything. “Totally sorry about that whole mix-up back there with the lobotomy and all. Forgives?”

Um…no. No I don’t.

In an interview with Zack Snyder, he said his movie was targeted towards all those naughty nerds (male) who leer and cat-call “hot girls” be they real, or character designs (probably created for equally exploitative purposes). So Sucker Punch is basically a slap on the wrist for any geeky guy who’s leered at any girl. This makes sense. Of the two dreamscapes, the first is a black and white staging ground for the second, which is supposed to place men in the position/perspective of Blue, the Mayor, and the High Roller (i.e. bad men leering at scantily clad women forced to serve them). The two dreamscapes are literally telling the audience how men treat women like whores made to dance on command.

In hindsight, this summarizes my moviegoing experience—as a woman, I didn’t come out feeling “empowered” as much as feeling like a pawn in someone else’s game.

Snyder, and the critics who’ve positively received Sucker Punch for its supposed message, missed the mark on this one. That’s great that they all think it’s wrong for men to objectify women, and it’s a decent attempt at calling the geek culture out on its bullshit. But Sucker Punch does not empower women. Snyder is just as guilty of using women while he reprimands the other side of doing the same. He’s taking his work as a dialogue between himself and another group of men, while women are touted out as necessary. On an intellectual level, what is the point of women seeing the movie? Or being able to enjoy the movie? Or get anything out of it at all if it isn’t really about us (women) so much as a shadowy, generalized them (men)? At best, women are tossed a mangy, meatless bone while the two sides duke it out over our heads. Both sides are ironically accusing the other of being the exact same thing. What does this say about our men today? How do we approach this tentative subject of men and their sexuality?

Since the rampant, undeserved popularity of the Twilight Saga, women—girl geeks in particular—have been publically exposed for being between a rock and a hard place. The status of women, and female portrayal, in the geek culture is well documented, and coupled with the sad reality that the pool of material available for women/girls in this culture is very, very, very shallow and largely tainted. The subject of women in the geek culture is something of a touchy one, though there’s no shortage of bloggers, commentators, and general people willing to call the geek culture on its narrow portrayal of women. The conflict arises when you look at how male-dominated (thus male-oriented) the geek culture is. It’s going to be genuinely difficult to create a work made for women, but appealing to geeks (read: men). Joss Whedon is my go-to example of how to draw and walk the fine line in-between without being exclusive—his work is made for geeks (read: men), but relatable to women. See the difference?

Honestly, I think that’s about as good as it’s going to get in the geek culture until a woman can come along and bridge the troubled waters. For now, I strongly encourage male geeks to just drop the subject. I’ll take your support, and your admissions of guilt, but I don’t want your mangy, meatless bones. I’ve got a juicy steak behind me, a grill, and some seasoning. I think I can show you you’re doing it wrong.

I can’t say I enjoyed seeing the movie. I’ve enjoyed arguing about it so much more. Part of its purpose, to me, is creating a dialogue on a very long, overdue conversation. However, the process of opening the lines of communication leaves a lot to be desired, and I’ll touch on that before I go.

The Story

This is a big one. I don’t have as much a problem with the story’s concept as I do the way it’s executed. I don’t mind keeping the story simple as a means of laying a foundation for the bigger picture. As a viewer, I don’t even mind the use, reliance, and outright dependency on so many tropes (the writer in me is a different story).

However, the framing leaves a lot to be desired, and I believe it is one of the biggest reasons the story falls apart.

The story’s frame (the part in “reality”) doesn’t give you any reason, hope, or reason to hope BabyDoll’s lobotomy isn’t anything less than executed on schedule. I don’t know why this type of tragedy has seeped into 21st century storytelling, but it needs to G.T.F.O. Now. When a story is framed in this manner of tragedy, particularly with the absence of hope, then the person responsible for writing the story has given the audience absolutely no reason to care about anything that happens. It doesn’t matter if the medium is fiction, fantasy, or film—if the audience has no reason to care about the material, the writer has failed at their job.

Storytelling Rule #1. Give the audience a reason to care. I spent way too much time in the theater waiting for the movie to end in the same way I spend most of my workshop classes wondering why I have to read my classmates’ sob-stories from start to finish.

P.S. By relying on caricatures instead of characters, the writer is already making their ability to pass Rule #1 hard.

Along those lines, caricatures cannot be swapped out for a surprise twist in the last two minutes. Characters can. It’s a jarring experience to suddenly go, “Kidding! This is the real main character,” when we’re talking cardboard cutouts. It’s a worthy effort, but in order to work the story has to give the audience a reason to give a damn.

Second problem with the story. Though the story has potential, in my mind Snyder is at fault for bad writing. Bad writing is bad writing, and somewhere in the immense gap between the beautiful action scenes and storytelling is a large neon sign directing the audience to which one Snyder is more accomplished/comfortable. Personally, I think a little could’ve been shaved off the ends of the CGI budget to partner a decent writer with Snyder to ensure the storytelling supports everything the movie is trying to accomplish. Then again, I don’t know much about the process of making a movie from start to finish, so maybe not. But I believe one could adjust the framing of reality, and give the caricatures some substance, and it wouldn’t negatively impact what the movie’s trying to accomplish.

And finally, I direct this last bit at the audience. If you “don’t get it” or “don’t like it” simply because of the presence of elements pertaining to geek culture (sci-fi, fantasy, videogames, comics, etc.) please shut up right now. I have been around enough of my fiction-writing peers long enough to know that if this story took out the geek mashup dream sequence and replaced it with a second, purely fictional dream sequence, you wouldn’t have had a single problem with the movie. At all. In fact, I’d lay money on it being a blockbuster. Just because someone crafts a story where parts of it don’t pertain to you doesn’t automatically make it awful. Technically, the story falls perfectly within the realm of fiction. But the story does enough damage to itself without you branding it with your sorry-ass, “But-but-but there’s fantasy in it! The horror!” excuse.

Overall, the movie isn’t terrible. It’s certainly worth seeing someday if only because people are talking about it. It’s much more interesting to talk about than it is to sit through.

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Constructive Crossover

I really need to find something geeky to geek out about, other than how bad I am at MvC3…

I am taking two courses this semester with opposing schools of thought.  One is  a seminar focused on examining images pertaining to the male character across literature and media.  The other is the women and comedy course I mentioned before.  They both meet on the same day, and it’s typically been a head-trip going from one to the other—because one looks objectively at men in society, and the other is prone to hating on men in society.

Last week, I had perhaps the single best classroom experience in my entire college career, and it was awesome.

The day began with me actually excited to have something relevant to say in the man-class.  You see, the day before I overheard on one of the local radio talk shows a call-in discussion pertaining to a man.  This man called in with a question of manhood—his sister-in-law was(and probably is still) giving him crap about “not being a man.”  He’s called “not a man” because he’s married, his wife works, she makes bank $$, no kids, they have a cleaning lady, and he does not work.  He does the occasional odd-job, but he doesn’t have a 9-5, or any other aspirations for a career.  He doesn’t play videogames, and orders basketball tickets since it’s the season and lots of men do that.  So the hosts posed the question through the station—

Is he a man?

Every single woman who called in just about cremated this guy.  They accused him of sitting around playing videogames all day, of being a freeloader, of stealing all his wife’s money, of being lazy, and “not being a man.”  BUT, these same women also admitted that if the genders were reversed, it would not only be okay, but acceptable for the situation to remain as it is.

“[They] don’t do it, no [they] work for [their] money, but it’s okay for a woman to be more/less kept by a husband, or even boyfriend.”

Now marriage is even chucked out the window!  These women fiercely argued that this man, if he wanted to “be a man,” should find a job and “support” (yes, that card was played) his wife, even if he doesn’t make as much.

I posed this story to the man-class, and we had a good discussion about the whole “breadwinner” concept and how it pertains here.  But moving right along…

That afternoon in the women-class we discussed the intersections between Emma, Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women, and the recent episode of 30 Rock where Tina Fey’s character tries being a spinster.  The teacher pointed out that “spinster” isn’t a term readily used anymore, and the topic revolved around the idea of women being single—particularly older women remaining single.  What are our perceptions of spinsters?  We went through the range of stereotypes (lonely, unhappy, somehow unable to land a man…etc).

Finally, the topic drifted to other women.  I pointed out that in the 30 Rock episode, it’s Liz’s female friend who rallies against the idea of Liz being okay, or even *gasp* happy, with being single, and that most pressures for today’s women come from other women.  (Today was a rare day for volunteering)

The good question/discussion came out from this point: n the 21st century, does a woman need a man?  What is the modern relationship between women and romance?  Along those lines, why are women still wrestling with the exact same thematic material of a book (Emma) written going on two centuries ago?  Is the idea of a woman being single and happy in some way threatening to other women?  These are questions we didn’t really come to a good, concluding answer on.

Look back to the couple above.  During the course of the segment the husband stated, several times, that him and his wife are happy with their situation—and frankly I think that’s as far as should be anyone’s business.  Does the wife in this relationship sound like she really needs to be supported?

In contrast, a woman who (either in real life or in books/movies/shows) supports herself without a romantic relationship, or marriage, is privy to scrutiny by other women—with the running stereotypes being alone, unhappy, desperate for companionship, and little-to-no money.  Side effects include being prone friends’ supposedly constructive meddling.

Compare this to the statements of the women callers, who plainly stated it’s acceptable for a woman to be completely kept by a man.  Boyfriend or husband, a man still needs to be somewhere in the picture of a primary supporting role. The focus of the radio show was the man, of course, but I’ll admit to being more fascinated by the outright, admitted, hypocrisy of the women—and painfully, painfully aggravated.

i can has?

I have to admit, I’m confused.  The women who called into the radio were very territorial over “their money,” and that collectively a man should not have anything to do with “their money.”  But if a man is supposed to be supporting you, what are you honestly doing with that money?  If you, as a woman making money, still need or want a man to support you in order to be “the man” in the relationship, what is he doing with his money?  Is yours hoarded away like a dragon’s cave?  Do you burn that extra on clothes, shoes, bags for every season?  I’m only asking because none of them suggested, inferred, implied, or stated that this male to female form of “support” is evenly distributed.  It’s one thing if you’re splitting rent money, or utilities—it’s another if “the man” has to pay for those completely because that’s his role in your life, and then you turn around wielding the phrase, “No man is touching my money.”

I understand there’s equally damaging assumptions to both sides of the equation, but for now I’m focusing on the women.  If I remember the song correctly…

“Ladies, it ain’t easy being independent.”

P.S.

If there was an episode to sell me on watching 30 Rock, that wasn’t it.  I don’t buy the concept that there’s only two forms of existence for women: single and unhappy, or involved (in any of its mono, poly, fwb, open, engaged, or married forms) and happy.  No matter how much humor you incorporate.

In addition, I have yet to be sold on the idea that the episode was constructed to parody that notion.

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